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Two decades ago the essence of adolescence was leaving hip-hop. In 1993, the wild success of cinematic albums like The Chronic and Doggystyle had shown corporate America just how large the appetite for rap was, but the next wave of musicians had something more serious in mind. A pair of young rapper-producers from Memphis straddled the tonal shift, and you can hear, on the two albums they released between the summer of '93 and the spring of '94, the unease of an industry flooded with money just as regional markets were wolfing down less commercial, grittier records. Last year, right around the 20th anniversary of the first of those records, Comin' Out Hard, I went to the birthplace of both Stax and Sun Records to hear the story of Premro Smith and Marlon Jermaine Goodwin, better known as Eightball and MJG.
When I got into my rental car at the Memphis Airport, the bass on the stereo was at +9. I left it there, because I was in the city to talk to the men who put a drop-top Lexus coupe on the front and back covers of their first CD and to the people who kept it in their CD players for years.
"I remember popping it into my Oldsmobile — I had a '83 Cutlass Oldsmobile — and we just hit the block, hit the mall and we just went everywhere. Just, 'Woo!' You didn't want to get out the car," says Drumma Boy, a producer born and raised in Memphis, who was 11 when Comin' Out Hard dropped. Even after he got his driver's license, "Mr. Big" was still that song, and Eightball, the rounder half of the group, still an inspiration. "I had a lot of big, fat-ass homies, you know what I'm saying? And I remember, like, how comfortable big dudes started feeling wanting to go out and hit the club more. Like, 'I'm balling, not because of my size.' His flow and who he was — he was just like a fly fat dude."
"I used to always listen to everything my big cousin listened to. You know how you run up behind you big cousin, and whatever they on, that's what you on, from the clothes to the music," says Young Dolph, a rapper who grew up in Memphis. "Eightball and MJG — they legends down here. Everybody was on Comin' Out Hard. Everybody was on it. I remember my cousins and them pulling up in they box Chevys, listening to Comin' Out Hard."
The album mattered to Memphis rapper Don Trip for a different reason. "The whole time, coming up as a rapper, that's what they told me: 'You will never make it from Memphis. You can never make it from Memphis.' Growing up, that was one of the milestones. Like, Comin' Out Hard came from here. If they can make it from here, anybody can make it from here," he says. "That's what gave me the ammunition I needed to know I can make it from here, period. I don't have to move to here to make it and say I'm from there."
When you are there, you can see the history of Memphis on plaques and honorary street names and restaurants like the Four-Way, which promotes itself as Martin Luther King Jr.'s favorite place to eat when he was in town. There's B.B. King's on Beale Street. And there are ghosts, too — an empty pyramid by the river, a crime scene at the Lorraine Hotel that's now a museum.
To Yo Gotti, a Memphis rapper who refers to the sanitation workers' strike of 1968 on the cover of his album I Am — the strike is the reason Dr. King was in the city when he was assassinated, the reason he gave his I've Been to the Mountaintop speech at the city's Mason Temple — the connection between the city's iconic soul music and Memphis rap is obvious.
"Soul is like — kinda like pain. You hear that even in the voice tone or the selection of music, and it just feel dark and painful, like the struggle," he says.
Signs of a struggle beyond the Civil Rights Movement are apparent in Memphis. Drugs and the war against them have taken a toll on some neighborhoods in the city, and it shows up in the music.
Yo Gotti makes what he calls "reality music" and told me about getting advice from Slim, co-founder with his brother, Birdman, of New Orleans' Cash Money Records. "I remember when I met him he was like, 'Money, drugs, sex is never gone leave. No matter how strict the laws get for it, people still gonna do it, so it always gonna be listeners for that type of music. Because people gone always be able to relate to it.' Because people living it."
"My aunties and uncles always told me about how they could ride past Stax and might see Isaac Hayes, and a whole lot of other singers from back in the day," says Young Dolph. "They had they cars, they whips out there, they at the studio, it's like the down-south Motown. Motown was just more shinier and more prettier, but all them struggle hits — a lot of stuff came from Memphis."
The music that Eightball and MJG were working on in '93 and into '94 leaned on that Memphis ache. They use the same material that, framed by the G-funk of Dr. Dre, was riding high on the Billboard charts at the time, but their sound is thinner and their delivery more vehement than you'd think wise given how hot it gets in Memphis. They are matter of fact, which makes their scenes grimmer than most, and their spreading popularity did not soften their blows. As they aged and traveled, the continued struggle of their neighbors rose further to the surface of their songs.
I met MJG at a sports bar in East Memphis. Out in the parking lot, I handed him my copy of his first album, and I had to ask why Memphis isn't the city on the cover.
"It's the Houston skyline. You know, we from Memphis, but we was just representing the big move and showing off the big city. We always spoke of Memphis and our neighborhood, Orange Mound, but we always made it a fact too that we was coming nationwide by way of Houston."
They were coming by way of Houston because they were coming by way of an entrepreneur named Tony Draper, who was only a year or two older than Eightball and MJG, and was building a label called Suave House Records over in Texas.
"That type of deal now would just be a regular little rudy-poo deal," MJG says. "It wasn't really like this suitcase of money or a big check right from the beginning. It was just a cat who was basically the same age as us, who knew a cat that we went to school with."
The Suave House deal was the biggest break a Memphis rap group had ever had, but Eightball says their stay in Houston was not particularly glamorous. "We was making the first few songs of Comin' Out Hard in a empty bedroom in a two-bedroom apartment. You know what I mean? No furniture."
"I remember being in Tony Draper's baby mother's apartment, in the back room, belting out those tracks," says MJ. "Some of the neighbors was loving it, and we had one to two call the police on us."
"Then we moved into a place where me, MJ and Draper all stayed together," says Eightball. "That's where the remainder of Comin' Out Hard and On the Outside Looking In was, I guess, created. Right there."
MJG recalls those months as a time of innocence, before they knew the lingo or how the music industry worked. Eightball calls it a "no-pressure lifestyle."
"I didn't know what a big deal was back then, you know what I mean? So I wasn't thinking about nothing being a big deal. We was just making music. We was just: 'This is what we're here to do. This is what we do. This is what everybody been knowing us for, since we was 15, 14."
And what Eightball and MJG were known for was snatching soul music — secular R&B fused with gospel in a union that had been painful — and putting it to work for a new generation. The title track of Comin' Out Hard samples "Stay," a Rufus and Chaka Khan song that's really a plea, and Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years," which is a lament for an absent mother written by a British singer. Eightball and MJG shoot guns over both of them.
"We left Memphis with a suitcase of records — 45s and 33s," says MJG. "We had a lot of Stax Records, Marvin Gaye records, Simply Red, Rufus, a bunch of stuff."
"All those samples on Comin' Out Hard came from records that we brought to Houston with us that our parents gave us," says Eightball. Records that Eightball says his mom would play when she was cleaning up the house or they'd hear on the radio driving around town — a town where, MJG says, every 10th house has a studio in it.
"Memphis artists — Memphis people — have a certain soul. Because we have such a deep and rich music history here. It's a lot of children of old band members, and 'My daddy used to play the guitar for such-and-such,' and 'My uncle was a background singer for Elvis,' and 'My cousin played drums for B.B. King.' This one of them towns where every other two or three people can probably sing or play an instrument just as good as anybody you'll see on TV, but they work a regular job."
Eightball and MJG met after they were each bused out of Orange Mound to Ridgeway Middle School. They both say they knew very young that they wanted to be more than fans of hip-hop — they wanted to make it.
"We was just those guys that as soon as the hip-hop scene was breaking off up in N.Y., we was following all of that. We was already trying to mimic it then," says MJG. "From the first time we was hearing Run-DMC and 'La Di Da Di' and Doug E. Fresh and B.D.P. and all them cats — we was doing it at the same time. Scratching and rapping and beat-boxing back then, in the early '80s."
"We start hanging out at this little spot shooting pool," says Eightball. "At this hole-in-the-wall club by MJG house that did blues, like live blues shows and made blues records. We hung out there so much, when they'd walk away, they'd let us get on the mic and start beat-boxing, rapping and stuff. The owner noticed the younger dudes that was in there selling dope and hanging out — cause they could come in there and smoke weed and stuff like that — was liking that. So that's how we started doing the talent shows."
The duo moved on up to citywide talent shows at the big community centers, with DJ Squeeky, and put out an EP their senior year of high school.
"I think we were more raunchy then, than later in our music," says Eightball. "Because it's a young mind. We were surrounded by all of this stuff, like the older cats that we was around, all they talked about was pimping these b- - - -es, you know what I'm saying? Moving this weight."
Comin' Out Hard, the album, is dramatic. "Every movie is based on a true story," says Eightball, "but they add things that make it look better on the big screen." If each song is a movie, all of them are rated R.
"We come from a time in hip-hop — the story rappers like Kool G Rap, the Slick Ricks. OK, that's East Coast. Then you got Texas music, which was big in Memphis. Rap-a-Lot. The Ganksta Nips, Odd Squad. Then you go to the West Coast. You got Ice-T, his early music: 'Six in the morning, police at my door.' Everybody was telling stories of things that was going on in they places, but back then everybody — I don't give a damn who you was — your music has to have a certain amount of theatrics in it."
" '93 was a changing time. Like if you look at the music one year before '93 and one year after '93, it's kinda totally different," says MJG. "It was really taking a turn."
Money and mainstream popularity were disrupting hip-hop, and musicians who were trying to leave behind gangster theatrics and adolescent glee were frustrated. For Eightball and MJG, and hip-hop largely, the no-pressure lifestyle was no more. Precocious storytellers Biggie and Nas formally debuted in 1994. OutKast opened another front in Atlanta. These artists were haunted, worried about their communities.
Eightball and MJG care about theirs, especially their old neighborhood Orange Mound, and MJG remains in the city where he was born. Eightball is mostly in Atlanta, a hub for the music business. But he says he doesn't consider himself any less of a Memphian for having left to make a living.
"It stay with a Memphis person, just like when a person leave New York or somewhere like that and talk with that accent for the next 30 years. And still telling people, 'I just moved here 30 years ago from Brooklyn,' or something, but you still talk like you just left yesterday. It stay with you."